Assassination

Three months after Lincoln's murder, the Atlantic sought to make sense of it

The assassination of President Lincoln threw a whole nation into mourning,--the few exceptions to those who deplored the President's violent and untimely end only serving to make the general regret the more manifest. Of all our Presidents since Washington, Mr. Lincoln had excited the smallest amount of that feeling which places its object in personal danger. He was a man who made a singularly favorable impression on those who approached him, resembling in that respect President Jackson, who often made warm friends of bitter foes, when circumstances had forced them to seek his presence; and it is probable, that, if he and the honest chiefs of the Rebels could have been brought face to face, there never would have been civil war,--at least, any contest of grand proportions; for he would not have failed to convince them that all that they had any right to claim, and therefore all that they could expect their fellow-citizens to fight for would be more secure under his government than it had been under the governments of such men as Pierce and Buchanan, who made use of sectionalism and slavery to promote the selfish interests of themselves and their party. The estimation in which he was latterly held by the most intelligent of the Secessionists indicates, that, had they been acquainted with him, their Secessionism never would have got beyond the nullification of the Palmetto Nullifiers; and that was all fury and fuss, without any fighting in it. Ignorance was the parent of the civil war, as it has been the parent of many other evils,--ignorance of the character and purpose of the man who was chosen President in 1860-61, and who entered upon official life with less animosity toward his opponents than ever before or since had been felt by a man elected to a great place after a bitter and exciting contest. There is not the slightest reason for doubting the sincerity of Mr. Lincoln's declaration, that his administration should be Constitutional in its character; nor can it be said that the earlier Rebels ever supposed that he would invade their Constitutional rights. They rebelled because circumstances enabled them to attempt the realization of their long-cherished dream of a slave-holding Confederacy, and because they saw that never again, in their time, would another such opportunity be offered to effect a traitorous purpose. It was clear to every mind that a year of quiet under the new administration would dispel the delusion that the North was about to overthrow the old polity; and therefore the violent men of the South were determined that that administration never should have a fair trial. Their action at Charleston, in 1860, by rendering the election of the Republican candidate certain, shows that they wished an occasion for revolt; and the course of President Buchanan, who refused to take the commonest precautions for the public safety, gave them a vantage-ground which they speedily occupied, and so made war inevitable.

That one of the most insignificant of their number should have murdered the man whose election they declared to be cause for war is nothing strange, being in perfect keeping with their whole course. The wretch who shot the chief magistrate of the Republic is of hardly more account than was the weapon which he used. The real murderers of Mr. Lincoln are the men whose action brought about the civil war. Booth's deed was a logical proceeding, following strictly from the principles avowed by the Rebels, and in harmony with their course during the last five years. The fall of a public man by the hand of an assassin always affects the mind more strongly than it is affected by the fall of thousands of men in battle; but in strictness, Booth, vile as his deed was, can be held to have been no worse, morally, than was that old gentleman who insisted upon being allowed the privilege of firing the first shot at Fort Sumter. Ruffin's act is not so disgusting as Booth's; but of the two men, Booth exhibited the greater courage,--courage of the basest kind, indeed, but sure to be attended with the heaviest risks, as the hand of every man would be directed against its exhibitor. Had the Rebels succeeded, Ruffin would have been honored by his fellows; but even a successful Southern Confederacy would have been too hot a country for the abode of a wilful murderer. Such a man would have been no more pleasantly situated even in South Carolina than was Benedict Arnold in England. And as he chose to become an assassin after the event of the war had been decided, and when his victim was bent upon sparing Southern feeling so far as it could be spared without injustice being done to the country, Booth must have expected to find his act condemned by every rational Southern man as a worse than useless crime, as a blunder of the very first magnitude. Had he succeeded in getting abroad, Secession exiles would have shunned him, and have treated him as one who had brought an ineffaceable stain on their cause, and also had rendered their restoration to their homes impossible. The pistol-shot of Sergeant Corbett saved him from the gallows, and it saved him also from the denunciations of the men whom he thought to serve. He exhibited, therefore, a species of courage that is by no means common; for he not only risked his life, and rendered it impossible for honorable men to sympathize with him, but he ran the hazard of being denounced and cast off by his own party. This places him above those who would have assassinated their country, but who took care to keep themselves within the rules of honorable action, as the world counts honor. He perilled everything, while they staked only their lives and their property. Their success would have justified them in general estimation, but his success would have been his ruin. He was fortunate in meeting death so soon, and not less so in the mode of his exit from the stage of life. All Secessionists who retain any self-respect must rejoice that one whose doings brought additional ignominy on a cause that could not well bear it has passed away and gone to his account. It would have been more satisfactory to loyal men, if he had been reserved for the gallows; but even they must admit that it is a terrible trial to any people who get possession of an odious criminal, because they may be led so to act as to disgrace themselves, and to turn sympathy in the direction of the evil-doer. No fouler murder ever was perpetrated than that of which Booth was guilty; and had he been taken alive and sound, it is possible that our conduct would not have been of such a character as it would have been pleasing to think of after our just passion should have cooled. We should recollect, that, a hundred and sixty years after its occurrence, the shouting of Englishmen over the verdict of Guilty rendered against Charnock and his associates, because of their part in the Assassination Plot, is condemned by the greatest of English historians, who was the last man to be suspected of sympathizing with men who sought to murder William III. A disposition to insult the fallen, no matter how vile may be their offences or how just their fall, is not an American characteristic; but so wide-spread and well-founded was the indignation caused by the basest murder of modern times, that we might have been unjust to ourselves, if the murderer had come whole into our hands. Therefore the shot of Sergeant Corbett is not to be regretted, save that it gave too honorable a form of death to one who had earned all that there is of disgraceful in that mode of dying to which a peculiar stigma is attached by the common consent of mankind.

Whether Booth was the agent of a band of conspirators, or was one of a few vile men who sought an odious immortality, it is impossible to say. We have the authority of a high Government official for the statement that "the President's murder was organized in Canada and approved at Richmond"; but the evidence in support of this extraordinary announcement is, doubtless for the best of reasons, withheld at the time we write. There is nothing improbable in the supposition that the assassination plot was formed in Canada, as some of the vilest miscreants of the Secession side have been allowed to live in that country. We know that there were other plots formed in that country against us,--plots that were to a certain extent carried into execution, and which led to loss of life. The ruffians who were engaged in the St. Albans raid--which was as much an insult to England as it was a wrong to us--were exactly the sort of men to engage in a conspiracy to murder Federal magistrates; but it is not probable that British subjects had anything to do with any conspiracy of this kind. The Canadian error was in allowing the scum of Secession to abuse the "right of hospitality" through the pursuit of hostile action against us from the territory of a neutral. If injustice is done their country in this instance, Canadians should recollect that what is known to have been done there for our injury is quite sufficient to warrant the suspicion that more was there done to increase the difficulties of our situation than now distinctly appears. The country that contains such justices as Coursol and Smith cannot complain, if its sense of fairness is not rated very high by its neighbors,--neighbors who have suffered from Secessionists being allowed to make Canada a basis of operations against the United States, though the United States and Great Britain are at peace.

That a plan to murder President Lincoln should have been approved at Richmond is nothing strange; and though such approval would have been supremely foolish, what but supreme folly is the chief characteristic of the whole Southern movement? If the seal of Richmond's approval was placed on a plan formed in Canada, something more than the murder of Mr. Lincoln was intended. It must have been meant to kill every man who could legally take his place, either as President or as President pro tempore. The only persons who had any title to step into the Presidency on Mr. Lincoln's death were Mr. Johnson, who became President on the 15th of April, and Mr. Foster, one of the Connecticut Senators, who is President of the Senate. There was no Speaker of the House of Representatives; so that one of the officers designated temporarily to act as President, on the occurrence of a vacancy, had no existence at the time of Mr. Lincoln's death, has none at this time, and can have none until Congress shall have met, and the House of Representatives have chosen its presiding officer. It does not appear that any attempt was made on the life of Mr. Foster, though Mr. Johnson was on the list of those doomed by the assassins; and the savage attack made on Mr. Seward shows what those assassins were capable of. But had all the members of the Administration been struck down at the same time, it is not at all probable that "anarchy" would have been the effect, though to produce that must have been the object aimed at by the conspirators. Anarchy is not so easily brought about as persons of an anarchical turn of mind suppose. The training we have gone through since the close of 1860 has fitted us to bear many rude assaults on order without our becoming disorderly. Our conviction is, that, if every man who held high office at Washington had been killed on the 14th of April, things would have gone pretty much as we have seen them go, and that thus the American people would have vindicated their right to be considered a self-governing race. It would not be a very flattering thought, that the peace of the country is at the command of any dozen of hardened ruffians who should have the capacity to form an assassination plot, the discretion to keep silent respecting their purpose, and the boldness and the skill requisite to carry it out to its most minute details: for the neglect of one of those details might be fatal to the whole project. Society does not exist in such peril as that. Does any one suppose, that, if the Gunpowder Plot had been a success,--that, if King, Lords, and Commons had all been hoisted by Mr. Fawkes, the English nation would have gone to wreck, that it could not have survived the loss of most of the royal family, the greater part of the peerage, and most of the gentlemen who had been chosen to serve in the House of Commons? England would have survived such a blow as that blowing-up would have inflicted on her, though for the time she might have been in a very confused condition; and so we should have survived--and we believe without exhibiting much confusion--all the efforts of assassins to murder our leading men, had those efforts been entirely successful.

It is possible, and indeed very probable, that Booth and his associates were originally moved to become assassins by that sentiment which has caused many other men to assail public characters, and sometimes with the bloodiest success. This supposition does not exclude the action of more eminent persons from the tragedy, who may have urged on those hot-headed fools to the completion of their work. Booth was precisely that sort of man who was likely to be the victim of the astounding delusion that to kill President Lincoln would place him in history alongside of those immortal tyrant-killers whose names are in most people's mouths, and whose conduct is seldom condemned and very often is warmly approved. There is constant praise going on of those who, in classic times, put to death men who held, or who aspired to obtain, improper power, or whose conduct was cruel. Booth thought that Mr. Lincoln was a usurper, and that his conduct was cruel; and he could have cited abundance of evidence from the speeches and writings of Northern men, professing to be sound Unionists, in support of the position that the President was a usurper and a tyrant. Having convinced himself that such was the position, and character of the President, it was the most natural thing in the world that he, a Southern man, and brought up on those sensational tragedies in which human life is easily taken on all occasions, should have jumped to the conclusion that it was his duty to kill the man whose plan and actions he had so strangely misconceived. If, while he was thus deluding himself with the notion that he was about to rival Harmodius and Aristogeiton, and other Grecian foes of tyrants, there came to him men who had too much sense to be deluded by such nonsense, but who, nevertheless, were not above profiting, as they regarded profit, from his folly, it is all but certain that he may have had accomplices who have not yet been suspected, persons to whom exposure would be a much greater punishment than death. Those old Greek and Roman writers have much to answer for, as they have conferred a sort of sanctity upon assassination, provided the victim be rightly selected; and who is to decide whether he is so selected or not? If murderers are to decide upon the deserts of their victims, there never was a murder committed. Much of the literature that furnishes material for the instruction of youth is devoted to the laudation of blood-shedding, provided always the blood that is shed is that of a tyrant; and who to say whether it is so or not? Why the tyrant-killer, to be sure. This is an admirable arrangement for securing simplicity of proceedings, but it admits of some doubt whether it can be quite approved on the score of impartiality. When a man unites in his own person the characters of accuser, judge, and executioner, it is within the limits of possibility that he may be slightly untrustworthy. But in what is known as classical literature, not only are tyrant-slayers allowed to have their own way and say, but their action is upheld and defended by great geniuses who never killed anybody with their own hands, but who had a marvellous fondness for those whose hands were blood-stained. Cicero, for example, is never tired of sounding the praises of eminent homicides. He scarcely praised himself more than he eulogized illustrious murderers of other days. And on his eloquent words in honor of assassination are the "ingenuous youth" of Christian countries trained and taught. That some of them should go astray under such teaching is nothing to wonder at. This has happened in other countries, and why should it not happen here? Assassination is not an American crime;[B] but it is not the less true that Brutuses have been invoked in this country, and that more than once President Jackson was pointed at as one from whose tyranny the country might advantageously be relieved after "the high Roman fashion." One man fired at him,--an Englishman, named Laurence, in 1834; but he proved to be insane, and was treated as a mad man. Lieutenant Randolph, a Virginian, assaulted President Jackson, but not with the view to assassinate him. Brooks's assault on Senator Sumner was an assassin's act, and a far more cowardly deed than that which Booth perpetrated, though it had a less tragical termination. The assassinating spirit has been increasing fast in the South, which is one proof of the growth of the aristocratical sentiment there,--assassination being much more in vogue among aristocrats than among monarchists or democrats, and most of the renowned assassins and conspirators having been aristocrats. It denotes the change in our condition that has been wrought by slavery and civil war, that assassination should have been much talked of here, and that at last the head of the Republic should have fallen before an assassin's fire. In other countries assassination has often been resorted to by parties and by individuals, but until very recently no public man can be said to have been taken off by an assassin in America. Booth and his associates stand alone in our history. Others may have talked pistols and daggers, but it was left for them to use weapons so odious for purposes of the same nature. Under the belief that the reader may not be indisposed to see what has been done by assassins in other countries, we shall here cite some remarkable instances of their deeds, passing over classic antiquity and modern Italy.

In the sixteenth century assassination flourished to an extent never before or since known: the hundred years that followed Luther's appearance on the great stage forming murder's golden age, whether we consider the number or the quality of the persons slain or conspired against, or the sort of persons who condescended to act on the principle that killing is no murder. Reformers and reactionists had their assassins; but it must be acknowledged that the latter had the best (which was the worst) of the game, so that nearly all the infamous names that have come down to us won immortality in their service. It was a great, a stirring time, one that was fertile in all manner of crimes, and in which a gentleman that had much nerve and no scruples was sure of constant and well-paid employment, and might make his fortune--or that of his family, if he chanced to be cut off because he had cut down some eminent personage whose life was a great inconvenience to this or that sovereign or party. The conflict that was waged was one of opinion, and therefore was fertile of fanatics, a class of men who have furnished a large force of assassins, who have generally acted on principle, without being always heedless of their interests. In the fierce struggle between old ideas and new, every weapon was employed, and the talents and dispositions of all kinds of men were made available by the great managers who had the casting of the performers in the numerous tragedies that were played. There was not a country in which assassination was unknown; and in most countries it was common, kings and churchmen being its patrons, and not unfrequently perishing by the very arts which under their fostering care had been carried to the highest pitch of artistic perfection. Philip II. was the most powerful monarch of those days. His regal career began just as the Reformation was at its height, and when the Reaction was about to begin. He was a sort of Christian Old Man of the Mountain; and assassination was with him a regular business, a portion of his mode of governing the many races that owned his sway. Mignet, in his "Antonio Perez et Philippe II.," after mentioning that Philip gave instructions to put Escovedo to death, says,--"This order would appear strange on the part of the King, if we did not call to mind the practices as well as the theories of that violent age, so fertile in assassinations. Death was then the last argument of belief, the extreme, but frequent means employed by parties, kings, and subjects. They were not satisfied with killing; they believed they had the right. Certain casuists attributed this right, some to princes, others to the people. Here is what the friar Diego de Chaves, Philip's confessor, wrote upon the very subject of Escovedo's death: 'According to my view of the laws, the secular prince, who has power over the life of his inferiors or subjects, even as he can deprive them of it for a just cause and by judgment in form, may also do so without all this, since superfluous forms and all judicial proceedings are no laws for him who may dispense with them. It is, consequently, no crime on the part of a subject who by a sovereign order has put another subject to death. We must believe that the prince has given this order for a just cause, even as the law always presumes that there is one in all the actions of the sovereign.'" When such a king as Philip II. has such a ghostly father as Diego de Chaves, assassination may become common. Escovedo was murdered; but there were others besides the King concerned in his taking off, one of them being the Princess of Eboli, widow of Philip's first favorite, Ruy Gomez de Silva, and Antonio Perez; and it was because the King believed they had tricked him in the business, that Perez fell, and, when in exile, had his life sought by some of his old master's assassins. Two Irishmen were authorized to kill him, by Philip's Governor of the Netherlands, but failed, and were hanged in London. Baron de Pinella tried to kill Perez at Paris, was detected, and executed. As he had been himself an active assassin, Perez could not well complain of these attempts; but they illustrate the theory and practice of the powerful Spanish monarch. Perez was one of those persons who labored to bring about the assassination of William (the Silent) of Orange. Writing to Escovedo, who was Secretary to Don John of Austria, then in the Netherlands, Perez observes,--"Let it never be absent from your mind that a good occasion must be found for finishing Orange, since, besides the service which will thus be rendered to our master, and to the States, it will be worth something to ourselves"; to which highly moral injunction Escovedo replied,--"You know that the finishing of Orange is very near my heart." There is something almost comical in this correspondence, considering its circumstances: Perez urging upon the man whom he was soon to assassinate the duty of procuring the assassination of the Prince of Orange, to whose party in Europe he was destined erelong to join himself. Philip has been suspected of having procured the death of his half-brother, Don John of Austria, by poison; but in this instance he is entitled at least to the Scotch verdict of Not proven. He did bring about the assassination of his ablest enemy, the Prince of Orange, though not until after failures so numerous as would have served to discourage a man of less persistent mind. Five unsuccessful attempts to kill the Prince were made in two years; the sixth was successful, that of Balthazar Gérard, who shot the Dutch deliverer on the 10th of July, 1584, in his house at Delft. Like Booth, Gérard used the pistol, a weapon that seems to have been invented for the promotion of murder. He made a determined effort to get off, and might have succeeded, had he not stumbled over a heap of rubbish. To all these attacks on Orange some of the most eminent Spanish statesmen and soldiers of that time were parties, and Spain was then the premier nation. The Prince of Parma, one of the foremost men of a period in which there was an absolute glut of talent, spoke of Gérard's detestable crime as a "laudable and generous deed," and strongly recommended that the reward which had been offered for the Prince's murder should be conferred on his parents, a suggestion with which Philip gladly complied. Those parents were made noble, and were further rewarded by the grant of certain estates in Franche-Comté, the property of their son's victim. This was to reverse the old saying, "Happy is the child whose father goeth to the Devil!"--for the happiness of the father was made by the child's taking the downward road. "At a later day," says Motley, "when the unfortunate eldest son of Orange returned from Spain, after twenty-seven years' absence, a changeling and a Spaniard, the restoration of those very estates was offered to him by Philip II., provided he would continue to pay a fixed proportion of their rents to the family of his father's murderer. The education which Philip William had received, under the King's auspices, had, however, not entirely destroyed all his human feelings, and he rejected the proposal with scorn. The estates remained with the Gérard family, and the patents of nobility which they had received were used to justify their exemption from certain taxes, until the union of Franche-Comté with France, when a French governor tore the documents to pieces, and trampled them under foot."

It would be tedious to mention all the assassinations with which Philip II. was connected. He and his proconsuls and ambassadors were concerned in many of the plots that were directed against the peace of countries whose power was dreaded by Spain, or against the lives of their sovereigns or other eminent personages. Elizabeth of England was to have been served after the same fashion as Orange. Alva sent assassins to take her off. Much of the assassination-work that was done in France proceeded from Spain. The Massacre of St. Bartholomew was a Spanish inspiration. In these days it would be called a coup d'état. All Philip's proceedings toward his enemies were characterized by the spirit of assassination. The murder of Montigny is a strong case in point; and the artful manner in which Egmont and Horn were inveigled into his toils shows that he was a master-hand at conspiracy. Had there been two Philips in Europe, one would have assassinated the other, and it would have been dangerous to bet on the success of either.

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